Courts Charges dismissed against former Cullman High Principal Bouldin; previous guilty verdict vacated | The Cullman Tribune

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Charges dismissed against former Cullman High Principal Bouldin; previous guilty verdict vacated

Former Cullman High School Principal Dr. Elton Bouldin, right, thanks his attorney Champ Crocker, left, at a Wednesday afternoon post-trial debriefing at Crocker’s office. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN - On Wednesday morning, a juror in the third trial of former Cullman High School Principal Dr. Elton Bouldin informed court officials of a conflict of interest: that alleged victim Justin Butts had contacted the juror’s son that morning via social media to ask if his father was on the jury.  After investigation of the incident in court, including questioning of Butts and the juror and an in-court phone call to the juror’s son, inconsistencies were discovered in Butts’ claims about the incident. As a result, a mistrial was declared, and the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office further declared that it would not pursue another trial, effectively ending the two-and-a-half-year-old case in Bouldin’s favor. Further, the guilty verdict in Bouldin’s first trial was vacated.

The juror’s son was a friend of Butts, and the two communicate primarily via the mobile app Snapchat.  In the juror’s testimony, he testified that his son called him earlier in the morning and notified him that someone (Butts) asked him if his father had jury duty.  When Butts was later brought in to testify on the matter, he denied that he had initiated contact with the juror’s son. Butts also stated that the juror’s son said his father had trial duty this week, and the son sent a picture of his father for Butts to confirm if he saw him in court the previous day, and Butts did confirm the father was the juror.  Butts said he and the son have not met in person, their main form of communication being Snapchat. The juror gave the court his son’s phone number for later development on the investigation.

The defense attorneys asked presiding Judge Scott Vowell for the necessary action to look through Butts’ Snapchat record.  Butts consented, and both sides’ attorneys joined the judge to find 14 exchanged snapchats between Butts and the son that were exchanged Wednesday morning.  While they were unable to view the contents of the messages, they could view the timestamps. Butts claimed it was mainly for “snapchat streaks” and said the messages did contain the question, but the fact that it was 14 messages is an example that their daily conversation does occur in this manner, like sending each other videos of things like hunting or a video of music playing in their cars.

The Snapchat timestamp showed that Butts sent the first message.  Butts claimed that it was what is known to Snapchat users as a “Snapstreak,” but still denied the claim that he had asked about the son’s father and jury duty first.  

After Butts left the stand, the judge decided to contact the juror’s son to get clarification and other testimony to clear the confusion, and to discover if there was a false testimony.  The court managed to reach the juror’s son and asked who contacted whom first. The son said Butts made first contact. The son then claimed that Butts asked about his father having jury duty first, stating “He took a picture saying, ‘Is your dad a juror?’ and I said yes.”  The son did say that Butts did not ask to communicate with or volunteer to talk with the juror about the trial. The attorneys wanted to know if Butts asked if the father had the “principal case.” The juror’s son claimed that Butts did not ask if the juror’s case was the “principal case.”  Shortly after the conversation between the two, the son called his father at 8:55 a.m. and notified him that Butts asked him if his father was on jury duty.

Bouldin tried three times

Bouldin had gone back to court Tuesday for a third trial, facing third-degree trespassing charges stemming from an incident in April 2016 when he and Cullman High School Assistant Principal Mark Stephens went to the home of then-student, Butts.  Butts had taken a firearm to an off-campus school function in a tackle box, inadvertently, according to him, but allegedly took the gun out of the box in sight of other students. After making what he said was a joking threat to “pop a cap” on another student on the trip, a subsequent physical altercation between the two sent Butts to urgent care for stitches.  When administrators found out about the incident and the firearm, they placed Butts in in-school suspension, then asked him to meet them at his home after school as part of their investigation.

The two educators entered the home- Bouldin says they were invited in; Butts says they were not.  Justin Butts' mother, Julee Butts, later swore out a warrant against Bouldin and Stephens, who subsequently turned themselves in and were released the same day.

Bouldin was found guilty of the charges on Oct. 13, 2016 in a bench trial presided over by Cullman County Circuit Judge Martha Williams.  Following the guilty verdict in his bench trial, Bouldin was sentenced to 10 days of labor and a $200 fine; however, Williams suspended his sentence and instead placed Bouldin on unsupervised probation for six months.  On a second charge, failure to report an incident of school violence, Williams found Bouldin not guilty. He had two weeks to appeal the trespassing conviction, which he did on Oct. 25, 2016, requesting a trial by jury.

Trial number two, a jury trial, ended in a mistrial on Aug. 22, 2017. That trial was also presided over by former Jefferson County Circuit Judge Scott Vowell. It was originally assigned to Cullman County Circuit Judge Greg Nicholas, who quickly recused himself following the assignment.

Reactions

Bouldin was represented by Birmingham attorney Bill Dawson and local attorney Champ Crocker.  In a joint statement sent to The Tribune after the case was dismissed, Crocker said:

“Today, Dr. Elton Bouldin can move past the cloud that has hung over him for two years. The State, defense and the Court agreed for the underlying conviction for a violation to be vacated and for the case to be dismissed.  The Prosecutors in this case were one hundred percent professional and I respect them. I am proud for Dr. Bouldin and his family today - now they can move on to the next chapter of their lives.”

Dawson simply praised his client, saying, “In 49 years of practice I've never had a better client or a client who was more innocent.”

Bouldin had more to say

In a face-to-face meeting Wednesday afternoon, Bouldin told The Tribune:

“The first thing that I do want to say is that I appreciate Champ Crocker and Bill Dawson for their very professional and capable representation.

“My family and I are delighted to have this accusation lifted from over our heads, and to be able to move forward without that charge being something that we’re having to deal with.  My faith family- the people at church and my other Christian friends that have prayed for me throughout this trial, literally, I appreciate their support. And I’ve had that for two-and-a-half years.

“To my teachers and students and families that I worked with in the school system over the last 27 years, that supported me throughout this, I owe them a great debt of gratitude for trusting in me and understanding that what was being said about me was not true.  Unfortunately, because of the criminal trial, I was not able to respond publicly about the accusations, other than to say it was not true. And those statements back on April the 20th of 2016 were not true then, and they are not true today, and I am glad that charge is gone.

“But in addition to that, I think that, hopefully, as a community we will take a look at protecting our educators.  What happened in my case, I hope will never happen in any other administrator’s life and their family’s life. Trying to perform my job--an important job: school safety, the protection of my students with due diligence--a parent was able to arrest me and Mark Stephens without an investigation.  And now, for two-and-a-half years, I’ve had to defend that arrest warrant that was inaccurate.

“I hope that the Legislature will take a look at passing an act that will require that, (sic) an administrator completing their job in a good faith effort to protect kids and to protect their school cannot be arrested simply on the statement of a parent.  They should pass an act that would require an investigation and probable cause before a parent’s warrant can be issued that would arrest an educator that is trying to perform a job that is, in my case, a part of my duties and responsibilities. There should be some protection for educators.

“I believe that what has happened to me has had a chilling effect on administrators, when they realize that you could be arrested simply on a parent’s statement, without an investigation and without probable cause.  And then you end up having to defend yourself. And it has the element of public humiliation, and, as I have learned in the legal system, it also has the effect of muzzling your opportunity to respond openly with evidence that has to be saved for trial.  

“So, while there is a presumption of innocence, you’re basically in a situation where you cannot respond.  And you have to hope that the courts will work and do their job. In this case it took a while, but eventually the truth prevailed, and the people can now make a judgment on whether I was performing my duty in an honorable and trustworthy manner, and I believe that I was.  And I believe that, today, I was vindicated in that.”

If you were still a principal and a similar situation occurred again, what would you do this time?

“I did not become an administrator to arrest kids.  I did not become an administrator to take kids and throw them under the jail or to get them in trouble.  I became an administrator to educate young people and to help them grow into contributing citizens.

“And so, in every situation where I deal with a student--including this situation--my goal is, first of all--in this case it had to be: Is my school safe?  Is there an intent to do harm? Is the student that was threatened at risk? Should I do something?

“At the same time, a zero-tolerance policy does not allow for the immaturity of students.  In three cases as an administrator, I have had students say things that were inappropriate.  But, once I investigated the intent and the capacity to do harm, it was an easy call. They had made a reckless, careless comment that other students were repeating, but they had no intent or capacity to carry out their threats.  

“And, instead of expelling them, wrecking their lives temporarily--it’s not that you can’t overcome an expulsion; I’m sure you can--why would I do that to a student when, with just a little common sense--so to answer your question directly, someone asked me, ‘Would you do that again?’ and the answer is yes.  If I had an opportunity to clear a student of a charge that they were intending to do something that could get them expelled, and my home visit would allow me to determine intent and remorse, to the point that I could recommend--not my role, as superintendent or principal--but I could recommend: the student had no intent and they are remorseful.  Please do not expel them. Would I do that again? Absolutely. I had already done it twice.”

The Tribune reached out to the Cullman County District Attorney's Office for a statement but received no response before this story went to press.

Wednesday night, Stephens provided the following statement to The Tribune:

"This was a very unfortunate event that Dr. Bouldin and I have endured. I am certainly happy that Dr. Bouldin can close this chapter of his life and celebrate 28 of years of hard work and dedication to public education. He can now enjoy his time with family and retirement. I am truly blessed to do what I do each day and it is a great relief to put this behind me so that I can go to work and completely focus on what is important, the kids at CHS.

"An event like this stains Cullman High School and our great community. Although the last two years have been trying times, a positive that I can bring from this experience is that I plan to work as advocate for change in our current laws as they pertain to educators. I believe that in our profession a misdemeanor complaint should be investigated and facts gathered before an arrest is made.  Had that been the case here, I truly believe this could have been avoided. 

"I hate that my family unnecessarily had go through this process with me. I certainly appreciate their support and resiliency. 

"I would like to thank Jason Knight for serving as my defense attorney and for managing my case over the last two years.  I would like to thank Fr. Patrick Eagan for his spiritual support and guidance. Lastly, but equally important, I want to thank Kim Hall and the staff at Cullman High School for the support and love they have provided and continue to do so each day. 

"Go Bearcats!"
 

Final Order- Elton Bouldin by TheCullmanTribune on Scribd

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